BENUE: The killings foretold and the ‘above the law’ herdsmen

•‘The blood of massacred natives will cry to the FG for failing to act’

BY PETER DURU, MAKURDI

Benue State was, on new year’s day, thrown into deep mourning, no thanks to suspected blood thirsty herdsmen who staged two days of coordinated attacks on six communities namely, Tomatar, Umenge, Akor villages in Guma, Governor Samuel Ortom’s home town, and Ayilamo, Turan, Ngambe-Tiev in Logo local government area of the state, leaving over 50 persons dead, including nine members of the state Livestock Guards, who also had their operational vehicle burnt by the invaders.

The attack also left several persons with varying degrees of injuries while scores of houses and property were razed and/or destroyed.

•People natives fleeing for fear of being killed

Residents of affected communities, who didn’t anticipate the attack, fled their homes for fear of being killed by the assailants.

The latest attack, the first since the commencement of the implementation of the Open Grazing Prohibition Law, last November, took the people unawares at the peak of the new year festivities.

Though herdsmen’s incursions into Benue date back to 2012, the crisis got to a head in early 2016 when militant herdsmen stormed Agatu local government area, killing close to 2,000 persons in what many, including the United Nations, described as genocide.

Regrettably, since the advent of the present administration, despite concerted efforts to check the escalating crisis, the state has recorded over 30 incursions of herdsmen across Benue communities, and, from Agatu to Makurdi, Guma to Logo, Buruku to Tarka, and Gwer West to Otukpo, it has been tales of sorrow, tears and blood for local farmers who lost loved ones and property.

Only recently, Governor Samuel Ortom lamented that Benue had lost over N95billion worth of assets and property while close to 3,000 had lost their lives to the crisis.

While the crisis and killings raged, Ortom and his Nasarawa State counterpart, Tanko Al-Makura, held several meetings to check the invasion of Benue from the neighboring state which culminated in the signing of a peace agreement after the Agatu massacre in early 2016.

All the peace efforts seemingly failed and the embattled communities were left with no choice but to pressure the Ortom government to enact the law prohibiting open grazing in order to put an end to the killings.

In 2017, the government came up with a bill to prohibit open grazing in Benue.

The said bill, which was subjected to public scrutiny and inputs by the people through public hearings and debates from stakeholders across the state, including herdsmen, was passed and signed into law last May though a six month window period was allowed for sensitization and advocacy before the law came into full effect on November 1, 2017.

On the day of the commencement of the implementation, Ortom addressed the people of Benue, advising all livestock breeders to fully comply with the law.

In his address, the governor had said, “There is no more open grazing in Benue State. All those who are interested in doing livestock business must ranch their livestock; otherwise the law will catch up with them.

“I appeal to all citizens to be law abiding, no one should take laws into his hands. We have put in place adequate machinery to enforce the law.

“Where there are trespasses or infringements of the law, report to the appropriate quarters and it will be duly handled by the team put in place.

“The law seeks to protect farmers and herdsmen alike. The law seeks to ensure peace for all citizens. The law is not targeted at any individual or group of people or any ethnic group.

“All of us must team together and work to ensure the success of this law. We have suffered hardship, we have suffered pains, we have suffered sorrow, we have lost so much from both sides and we cannot allow this to continue as leaders with the responsibility of providing security for lives and property.

“I want all citizens to join hands with government to ensure that we adopt this method of ranching which is the global best practice for all those in livestock business all over the world.”

Since the commencement of the implementation of the law, residents had had respite from suspected herdsmen’s attacks and the people lived in peace with one another.

Though before the law came into effect, the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore had registered its opposition to the law, insisting that it was intended to frustrate the trade of herdsmen in the state.

The group was alleged to have threatened to resist the law and invade Benue to express its resentment and even went as far as dragging the state government to court over the matter.

Bothered by the threat, the Benue government appealed to the Federal Government to arrest the leaders of the group and prosecute them.

Aside the state government, the leadership of the three major ethnic groups in the state, under the aegis of the Mdzough U Tiv, the Idoma National Forum and Omi’Yi Igede, and through Chief Edward Ujege, appealed to the Federal Government to call the Miyetti Allah group to order.

While this transpired, various groups, including half clad women, the disabled, youths and NGOs members, took to the streets of Makurdi, the state capital, to register their support for Ortom.

Whereas the Federal Government took the alarm raised by the people of the state for granted, the unimaginable happened: Women, including the pregnant, children and unarmed men and youths were slaughtered in two days of coordinated attacks that started on new year’s day in Logo and Guma local government areas.

Since then, Benue has been in sombre mood; even Ortom couldn’t fight back tears. He wept openly when he saw bodies of the slain residents being moved to the morgue of the Benue State University Teaching Hospital, BSUTH.

Reacting to the development, the governor said, “From what we have heard, so many people have been killed by these herdsmen. You would recall that I made official report to the Federal Government about the planned invasion of Benue State by these herdsmen claiming that they will resist the law.

“I have never seen where people will come out with this level of impunity. The law was legitimately passed. Nobody has faulted it. It is our right to make laws for the good governance of our own state and as a government it is our responsibility to provide security for lives and property.

“We have said severally that this issue of herdsmen and farmers clashes was a big challenge, especially to us in Benue State, because we are mostly farmers. And we divinely sought God’s face and we came out with this position of ranching which is not targeted at any ethnic group or any particular person but meant to provide peace for herdsmen and farmers.

“It provides that if you want to stay in Benue and do cattle business, you ranch your cattle. If you want to do open grazing, you are free to leave and this government is willing to provide adequate security to guide you to wherever you want to go.

“This has been our position and, since the implementation of the law, there has been relative peace. Now these herdsmen have come to kill and send the people running helter-skelter again after we started the implementation which everybody approved.

•Some youths protesting the killings

“Those who wanted to leave left and nobody was attacked. This is not acceptable. We are not going to accept it. There is no going back on the implementation of this law. This is our land and the law was duly passed by our people. Now, those people who have been killed, their blood will cry to the Federal Government and if Federal Government doesn’t do something, their blood will cry to the Almighty God and I’m sure that God will deal with the situation Himself.

“This is not fair and it is not acceptable. I think this is where the Federal Government must come in immediately to stop this because these people are known. We heard that they met in one state and gathered together and mobilizing to come to attack.

“They passed through roadblocks. These people are known people and they have sophisticated weapons. So why have they not been arrested all these while. This is the question we are asking. Does it mean that we should allow the people to take laws into their hands and also buy guns and begin to kill? Is that what we want? There will be anarchy and nobody knows what will happen thereafter.

“This is not fair. We must rise up. Nigerians must rise up, the federal government must rise up to protect us because this is not right. They own the security apparatus. The ones that are here are doing their best but there should be more and that is what we are calling for.”

“This is unfortunate, we are living in a country that is presumed to be our own. Security agencies in this country had been aware of the impending attacks and what you seeing here is just a tip of the iceberg.

“From the report I have gotten so far what has happened is beyond what we are seeing here in Makurdi where some of the dead and injured are being brought for medical attention.

“So many people have been killed, houses razed and some of those killed had their throats slashed, eyes and private organs removed and killed like animals.

“At the moment the entire Logo and Guma and Gums local government areas have been turned into centres for refugees where people are running and fleeing for safety.

“You can imagine that innocent women and children and unarmed people were slaughtered in cold blood just for no reason all because they want to be law abiding. I feel sad about all this. Is this how we are going to continue?”

The day after the killings, Makurdi was on lockdown after some youths took over the strategic Wurukum roadabout and the Makurdi Lafia road in protest over the killings.

Same day, Benue State Police Command said it had arrested eight herdsmen in Guma and Logo local government areas in connection with the bloody attacks.

The protesters, numbering over 3,000, who took over the major roads as early as 8am, created a huge gridlock leaving motorists stranded. They went into a frenzy when they saw a car conveying the bodies of some victims of the new year day’s attack from Guma local government area to the BSUTH morgue.

The irate youths, who sang war songs, demanded President Muhammadu Buhari’s resignation if he could not address the herdsmen’s menace.

The protest went violent when Ortom, alongside members of the State Executive Council, tried to prevail on the angry youths to be calm, promising that the matter had been reported to the President who ‘promised to intervene’.

At that point, the youths demanded that the President should come and address Benue people over the killings and when the governor asked them to show understanding, the protesters became unruly and started throwing stones and sticks. Security operatives had to whisk Ortom away from the scene to safety.

Reacting to the development, the governor appealed to the Federal Government to arrest the leadership of the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore over the killings.

He said, “The President and Secretary of that group had acted above the law by threatening to invade Benue and they have made good their threat. I am accusing them directly. They should be arrested. There are no sacred cows in this country if we all must be seen to be Nigerians.”

The governor, who disclosed that more bodies were being recovered from the bush in the affected communities, pleaded for calm in the state, stressing, “I feel the pains of my people and that is why we have this kind of situation but we must not allow our anger to linger.”

Also reacting, the President of Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, in the state, Reverend Akpen Leva, accused President Muhammadu Buhari of silence over the “persistent massacre in Benue by herdsmen”.

Leva said if the President had not been mute over the threats by herdsmen to invade Benue, the massacre in parts of the state would have been averted.

He said, “The Church is saddened by the renewed attacks on Benue people by the Fulani militia. The action is a Jihadist agenda against Benue people.

“We blame the Presidency for the attacks because several letters had been written to Mr. President on the issue of threats of attacks by the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore but none was responded to.

“If the President could quell the Boko Haram and Biafra agitators, why has he continued to keep silent on the herders menace?”

He noted that the attacks were a materialization of the threats by Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore which openly rejected the implementation of the Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law.

On his part, the Muslim community, through Alhaji Abubakar Dankeji, Senior Special Assistant to the Governor on Community Relations, urged President Buhari to urgently intervene to stop the killings in Benue.

Dankeji said, “Honestly we the Muslim community are not happy over the killings. In the last one month we have been organising people in the various Mosques to pray for this government. We will not accept people coming from other places to cause chaos for the state.

“The governor is trying, the grazing law was enacted for peaceful coextensive between farmers and herders. The Governor gave the people the law because they demanded for it in order to ensure peace.

“A human being should not kill a fellow human beings because of animals, it is unfair, the President has to act fast to stop these killings in the interest of the generality of the people.”

The Minister of Interior, Lieutenant General Abdulrahman Danbazzau (ret.), amid the protests of the killings, visited Benue and promised that the federal and Benue State governments would collaborate to find lasting solution to the recurrent killings in Benue communities.

Danbazzau, who blamed the carnage on criminal elements, said he had been directed by Buhari to visit the state to commiserate with the people and also assess the situation with a view to taking action to find lasting solution to the crisis.

“The Federal Government understands the pains of the people of Benue and there is no way government would sit and watch this to continue”, the minister said.

“This issue dates back to 2012 and those behind it are criminals. They have been doing it in parts of the country and the Federal government is determined to ensure that they are apprehended and made to face justice.

“Be assured that the Federal and Benue State governments will come together and collaborate to deal with the problem.

“We all know that the Tivs and Fulanis have always lived together for several years so we must come together to deal with the criminals behind the killings.

“The crisis obviously has nothing to do with ethnicity or religion but criminality so whoever is involved must be made to face the music.

“We must also desist from politicising the issue or allow anyone to use it for political gains rather we must all come together to find lasting solution to the crisis.”

The Minister noted that the President had not forgotten the massive support the people gave him at the last elections and the ceaseless prayer sessions the people of the state held for his quick recovery while he was away on medical vacation assuring that that they were not alone in their moment of grief.

Meanwhile, lawmakers representing the state at the National Assembly called for the arrest of the leadership of the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore for their alleged complicity in the massacre.

In a statement in Makurdi, the lawmakers, led by Senator George Akume, said their call was premised on the fact that the group had threatened to invade the state if the grazing law was not reversed.

The statement read in part, “The Federal Government should support the implementation of the Anti-Open Grazing Law passed and signed into law by the Benue State government and other states.

“A military base on the Nasarawa-Benue and Taraba-Benue state borders should be established for quick response to threats by the herders.

“North Central Development Commission should also be established to address the plight of the affected areas arising from the damage caused by the persistent conflicts between the herders and farmers.”

The federal lawmakers also urged the federal government to immediately set up camps and send humanitarian assistance to the affected communities and also compensate the affected communities.

Meanwhile, some of those who lost loved ones, including 80-year-old Mama Janet Gur, who said she lost her younger brother in the massacre, appealed to the Federal Government for justice.

Speaking through an interpreter, the octogenarian, who wept as she spoke at the morgue of the BSUTH where the remains of her brother were deposited, said, “They should have killed me instead of the young man.

“This is no longer the country I grew up in and I am still at a loss and cannot understand why our people are being killed as if we don’t have a government in Nigeria.

“Justice must be done in this matter. The Federal Government cannot continue to pretend that all is well when our people are being killed like animals. This is not the Nigeria I grew up in.”

 

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